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Hold the Char Siew! Exporting to Asia, One Man’s Journey

Hold the Char Siew! Exporting to Asia, One Man’s Journey

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Hold the Char Siew! Exporting to Asia, One Man’s Journey

204 pages
2 hours
Nov 3, 2016


In Singapore, when one orders char siew fan (rice with barbecued pork) he gets siew yoke (roast pork) and siew cheung (roast sausage) as part of the deal. Author Benny F. H. Lee, a trade consultant, who isn’t too fond of barbecued pork, always tell the stallholder to hold the char siew and give him the rest. When he did the same in Hong Kong, the stallholder grew mad with rage. In Hong Kong, char siew fan means rice with barbecued pork and nothing but. Telling him to hold the char siew meant asking him for plain rice.That incident wrenched Benny out of the delusion that he understood the culture in Hong Kong simply because he shared a common Chinese dialect. The same is the case with many international marketers who assume they know a foreign market because they speak the local language.

In his book Hold The Char Siew, Benny breaks down the basics of marketing in the Asian continent. To his credit, Benny has over thirty years of international marketing experience. In 1994 he left the corporate world and set up his own export consultancy. Since, he has successfully consulted with MNCs in various countries. He is also a well-known speaker and writer, who has been published in The Business Times among others.

Nov 3, 2016

About the author

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Hold the Char Siew! Exporting to Asia, One Man’s Journey - Benny Lee



I was a second-year student in the Faculty of Business Adminstration at the University of Singapore. A scholarship programme sponsored by Japan Air Lines to study in Sophia University in Tokyo has imbued in me a love for interacting with peoples of different nationalities. It set me off in my quest for corporate nirvana – a career with a heavy international content. Thankfully, I have found it, and at 55, am still enjoying it.

In 1976, Aiesec International* awarded me a traineeship with Caterpillar Far East in Hong Kong. A 6-month training programme led to a job offer. I was overjoyed, since a short stint in a local bank had convinced me that a sedentary job was, for this author at least, a fate worse than death. (Also, it was a S$640 civil service job in Singapore versus a HK$4,000 job at Caterpillar in Hong Kong.)


In the blink of an eye, it’s been 30 years since I began my international marketing career in the Asia Pacific, representing multinational industrial product companies from the West (America, United Kingdom, Belgium, New Zealand, Luxembourg and Italy), either as an employee or an Export Consultant. A stint with a Hong Kong company largely in the agency business between 1985-88 gave me a view of the export market from the other side of the fence. And, having bought over an existing access control agency business in 1994, I bagan to suss out what really makes a business ticks.

Why The Book

This book is about how to establish an export beachhead in the Asia Pacific region. Looking back, there were lessons which cut across product sectors, nationalities of the original companies and personalities involved; the cultural gaps at play were independent of the factors aforementioned.

For some reasons, most books on doing business in Asia – multi-racial at best, inscrutable at worst – are written by Anglo-Saxons. This book serves to buck the trend.

Finally, for practising International Marketers, if the book resonates with you – if my anecdotes and limited experiences echo your very own, or touch you in any way – drop me a line at

I would love to hear from my fellow road warriors.

* Aiesec is an international organisation started in Switzerland for business students by business students linking them to the corporate world through industrial attachments or traineeship worldwide.

On a morning of unusually lucid sunshine in 1976, a message that would forever change my life arrived at my home in East Coast Hill. The telex (the fax machine though invented circa 1840 was not commercially available or popular) said I was wanted in Hong Kong for a training exchange programme with a tractor firm there. I had only recently graduated from business school in the then University of Singapore.

Having been selected for the exchange programme by Aiesec – the world’s largest student organisation – meant I had to work in Caterpillar Far East to plan and execute a market research survey of the tractor population in the entire Far East: Brunei, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Korea, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, and Thailand. The purpose was to find out, through a census of every piece of earth-moving equipment in the region, the market share of the different brands – Caterpillar, Komatsu, Ingersoll-Rand, International Harvester, John Deere, Mitsubishi, Jacobsen, etc. This was then to be segmented according to the machine type: tractor, wheel loader, hydraulic excavator, road grader, dump truck and so on.

With a shift of gear, and a little help from Aiesec, my career in International Marketing had taken off.

International Marketing entails the rigors of criss-crossing the globe. Seeing the big wide world has been, still is, and will always be, mind-blowing. The Dead Sea and Petra in Jordan; the Tunnel dug by the North Koreans at the Demilitarised Zone in Korea; endless Kalbi and Bulgolgi BBQ dinners on cold mountain top restaurants in Korea; eating balut in the Philippines; Cracker Barrel Grandma Special breakfast in the US; countless KTV parties in Shanghai and Taipei...

Instead of getting chained to a soul-sapping work station banging away at the calculating machine (before the advent of the spreadsheet and notebook computers) in a faceless bank, life for me was one of jetting in and out of this exciting world city called Hong Kong. That became a routine, not a dream.

It was an extremely cold Christmas eve in 1976 in Hong Kong. Global warming was just a distant rumble on the horizon. The temperature on that night was five degrees Centigrade. Snow blanketed Tai Moh Shan, or Big Foggy Mountain, in the New Territories. Shivering through the night and sneezing endlessly, it was only the vigour of a young athletic body strengthened by years of rugby training and two and a half years of National Service that averted a full-blown flu.

Upon finding appropriate accommodation, I settled down to living the bachelor’s life in this vibrant city. On the first night on my own (my two uncles had been looking after me before I found my own accommodation), I ran smack into my first cultural shock.

Back in Singapore, when one ordered char siew fan (rice with barbecued pork), it would always come with siew yoke (roast pork) and siew cheung (roast sausage). As I did not like barbecued pork, I would tell the stallholder to hold the char siew. In Hong Kong, this same request was received with considerable loathing as char siew fan in Hong Kong did not come with roast pork or roast sausage. The hawker was not amused, thinking I was mocking him by asking for a plate of plain rice. (In Hong Kong you get what you order, nothing more nothing less. For instance, if you order a bowl of wanton noodle soup, that is all you get, whereas in Singapore, you would also get char siew and some choi sum vegetables.) Before I realised my mistake, the man, incandescent with rage, slammed his hefty cleaver on the chopping block. I was stunned. That moment wrenched me out of my delusion – that I had understood their culture simply because we shared a common Chinese dialect.

My first chinese New Year in Hong Kong as a young expatriate,1977.

Imagine a native Cantonese who has been speaking Cantonese since birth coming into this quintessentially Cantonese town and tripping over the mother tongue. There were words like kuk which is not used; yat kuk is ten cents in Singapore but in Hong Kong, ten cents is yat ho ji. In the intricate and fascinating world of International Marketing I have learned many lessons.


Never assume to know a foreign market just because you speak the local language. In the US, the assumption is that if you speak the language, you know the market. Nonsense. A candidate in the UK and US applying for the Export Sales Director job who speaks Putonghua (Mandarin) or Japanese may not necessarily know China or Japan. An Anglo-Saxon who speaks Mandarin or Cantonese is like someone who has the key to a house. It is easier for him to find his way to Puxi from the Pudong International Airport in Shanghai as compared to someone who does not. Yet, it does not equate to his knowing the inside of the house, where the treasures are, where the safe is and probably not even where the kitchen is. Using the kitchen analogy, in order to be successful in exporting to a particular foreign market, one may even need to know what is normally stocked in the kitchen cabinets and what kind of food the host likes to prepare.

It came as quite a shock to me that so many Hong Kongers would loiter on the streets of the crowded city till the wee hours, day after day. In Caterpillar Far East where I worked, going for Happy Hours at the Lau Ling Bar in the Furuma Hotel next door was a staple. The reason was simple: Most homes were so small, it made more sense to spend as much time as possible outside. The corollary was that you don’t get invited home very much in Hong Kong. As a result, expatriates living in Hong Kong did not get to see this aspect of the ex-colony’s life much. Then again, being foreigners, they would not have expected to be invited anyway. It is pertinent to point out that notwithstanding modernisation, it is very much Chinese culture to show hospitality – including inviting your friends home. In predominantly Chinese societies like modern Singapore, you don’t drop in on someone unannounced like the good old days, but home visits are still practiced especially during Chinese New Year.

Another deep cultural difference between Hong Kong and Singapore is that, in the former, ‘packaging’ – dressing and presentation – is everything; high society is much more pronounced and entrenched. A big chunk of your salary in Hong Kong goes to the wardrobe. On the second day of my induction into the high life at Caterpillar Far East, the boss’ secretary, Mona Chik (bless her!) told me in subtly polite tones that I needed to upscale my entire presentation. The next sundown I headed straight for the Central shopping area for a pair of Johnston & Murphy shoes, some Ermenegildo Zegna ties and Valentino business shirts. In the mirror, I surveyed my entire first month’s stipend.

Another aspect of Hong Kong society that stumps Singaporeans is their apparent rudeness and lack of social graces, especially in shops around Tsim Sha Tsui and Causeway Bay. This can be explained by the totally laissez faire society that they live in. The British colonial government, intentionally or otherwise, had left the locals to their own devices with nary a safety net. There is no Central Provident Fund or pension if something untoward happens to a Hong Konger. Eking out a living becomes brutally competitive. There is no room for everyday graces; just making enough to cover rental is a struggle for most retail shop owners in Hong Kong. Hence the curtness once they perceive that you will not be fishing out your wallet.

By the same token, the laissez faire policy brings out in Hong Kongers a keen sense of entrepreneurship that puts Singaporeans – so used to government patronage – in the shade. A good example is the taxi service. There is no surcharge of any kind be it to and from the airport or after midnight as in Singapore. What the Hong Kong government does is simply to issue sufficient number of licenses and let market forces take over. The system works amazingly. There is a cab waiting for you irrespective of where and when in Hong Kong compared to Singapore’s sometimes dismal (peak hours) taxi situation as evidenced by the truckloads of complaint letters in the newspapers.

What is the intent in highlighting all these social characteristics of Hong Kong?

You need to keep an extremely open mind as an International Marketer.

In addition, it is imperative to use this first chapter to emphasize a key requirement of success in exporting or International Marketing:

You travel to live (just like one eats to live) and not live to travel.

Getting on a plane for an International Marketer is driven by one raison d’etre only – getting a job done, be it to solve a letter of credit problem or to resolve a dispute with an agent. Business travel entails open ticketing most of the time as we would not be able to tell when we depart or how long we need to stay. Business travel means endless shuttling between the agent’s office, airport, the hotel and some restaurants. No sightseeing, no sitting by the beach. Plenty of dining and wining (part of doing business in most of Asia), plenty of second guessing the body language displayed in the day’s meeting (wayang kulit or shadow play) and plenty of talking to smoothen relationships.

One fine day in 1984, acting as the regional export manager for Blue Circle Armitage Shanks, I was summarily called into the office of the CEO Martyn Horbrough. Four containers of washbasins from our Malaysian factory were found to be completely unusable owing to multiple pinholes found on the surfaces (British Standards allows no more than seven pinholes in ceramic ware). These containers were already trucked to Guangdong. An

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